The Last Soldier

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The Independent Culture
James Hudson joined up in 1916. He went over the top at Arras, and endured the horrors of Mons and Ypres. He survived two gruelling years on the Western Front while thousands died around him every week. At 101, he is one of an elite and dwindling band of Great War veterans. And, today of all days, the last Armistice Day of the century, he will remember

He was the smallest and youngest new recruit to the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment in 1916. At 5ft 2in and weighing just eight stone, he didn't look like someone you could train into a powerful fighting- machine. Yet he stayed on the Western Front for two gruelling years, while thousands died around him every week. He saw action in three of the most savage battles in the history of warfare - at Mons, Arras and Ypres - and came through them physically unscathed. He remained a private throughout the war, a marksman and a musician. He received no decorations from the top brass, but the French awarded him the Legion d'Honneur.

Today, James Hudson sits in the living-room of his handsome, detached house in rural Middlesex. This is golfer's territory, a rich man's playground. The only sounds of gunfire are those from the Holland & Holland Sporting Rifles shooting-range a mile away. Now 101 years old, Dr Hudson has lived in two centuries and is preparing to encounter a third. A tiny, spry and hyper-articulate old soldier, who has also worked as a dentist and consultant surgeon, he talks with vigour about the war that killed so many of his fellow scholars and friends. He doesn't like to dwell on the dark side of it all, he says.

Nine million servicemen were killed in the First World War. Today, Armistice Day, we remember them all. There are 260 Great War veterans still alive. Here is the story of one of them.

James Hudson was born in London in March 1898 and grew up in Tunbridge Wells. One of his earliest memories is of soldiers. "I was in a pram in Holland Park, being pushed through the streets. We stopped and looked through a gateway and there was a troop train of chaps going out to the Boer War. I remember them raising their bottles and glasses. I remember thinking they were waving at me. My mother told me it was more likely to have been my young aunt, who was pushing my pram. She would have been about 17."

He is vague about his father, who "did all sorts of things, largely mixed up with horses - he came from Epsom. He was only 23 years older than me." His mother didn't work; she had her hands full looking after a young husband and two sons.

James was 16 when war broke out. He and his friends gazed at Lord Kitchener's "Your Country Needs You" poster.

"A lot of my family's friends had sons around 18, and they joined Kitchener's army. We lost an enormous number of boys. I was left with only one friend; we used to cycle about a lot together. I remember people talking about how it was all going to be over by Christmas. We were doing very well, it seemed - and then the Army got into trouble in France. I heard such things, I began to get worried that the Germans would win."

James was a medical student at Guys Hospital when he decided to enlist, aged 18. "I went up from Tunbridge Wells to the recruiting office at 112 The Strand. Nobody was there but me and a large petty officer, who took me to Great Scotland Yard to be examined. The doctor later became the most senior physician in London, a chap named Sir Thomas Marlow. We volunteers stood in two lines, about 24 of us, starkers. He walked along and looked at us - and when he'd finished, there were only eight of us left. The others were sent home. But I was a gymnast, you see, and I practised muscle control by will-power."

He got in. "I was given a day's pay. They said, `Wait to be called up'. They hadn't called me up three weeks later, and I thought, they've forgotten all about me." So he applied again, this time asking to join the Royal Signals. Unfortunately he met the large petty officer again, who shouted, "You bugger off home and wait till you're bloody well called".

He applied more times. Then he tried the Navy. "In the end, I got damned tired of waiting to hear," he says with exasperation, "so I joined the Regular Army."

Why had he been so keen to join up? "I was studying history at school. I enjoyed reading about wars and battles. And a lot of men in those days lived to protect women and children. I was full of that romantic sort of line. And I wanted to go into a Scottish regiment, because I was love with everything Scots - the tartan, the kilts, the bagpipes. I was a musician; I played the violin. I used to play Scottish airs and imitate the bagpipes. But I joined up rather than wait around. I must have been nuts." Did his fellow students go with him? "A lot of the boys went into the Kent Cyclists' Battalion. It became a branch of the cavalry."

The Eighth Battalion of the Royal West Kents sailed to Boulogne in 1916, stayed for two nights, and decamped to the notoriously tough infantry base depot known as the Bull Ring. "You went through three or four weeks of intense final training, to bring you up to battle-readiness and give you a feeling of trench life at night. It was the toughest training of all. It was so hard that the people who came after us rebelled against it. A big crowd of recruits went round to their quarters and beat them up. They closed the Bull Ring after that".

The battalion headed for the front line, and for two years Hudson shuttled between the trenches and the recuperation sites and supply depots. The main sense-impression of war for him, 83 years later, is not artillery shells or dead bodies, but lice.

"All the troops were covered with lice from the neck down. Never the head. All your clothes were full of it. They wandered about your body. On wet and cold days, you'd have the ruddy things biting you. They laid their eggs in the seams of your clothing. I remember sitting on the ground at Ypres in the summer and picking them off the outside of my trousers.

"There was a village in Ypres just behind the line, where we'd taken over a brewery. Lots of pipes were hanging down, with watering-can roses. One of the chaps in control yelled, `You've got a minute to get wet', and turned on the water. At the end of a minute, he said, `You've got a minute to put soap on'. End of a minute, he said, `Now you're getting a minute to rinse'. It was the only bath I had in the Army in two years."

The first time Hudson went "over the top" was at Arras. Typically, he is brisk about any second-hand (my-God-sergeant-it's-the-waiting) cliches of trench life. "We didn't have much time to wait," he says, "because we were following the main thrust that took Vimy Ridge." The main thing he remembers is having "so much equipment - your .303 rifle, your box respirator, your tin lid, the pouches that held all your bullets, your entrenchingtool, blade and handle, bayonet and scabbard, and your rucksack with your iron rations. Then they gave us another 50 rounds of ammo in a cotton bandolier, and two Mills bombs to go in your tunic pocket. So we went over the top, across no-man's land, up to the front-line trenches of the Germans. All the chaps were able to jump across the German front line, but I wasn't. I hit the parapet and slipped into the trench. There had been a lot of rain and snow, though it was early April, and it was very clayey soil. I kept slipping, trying again and slipping. I thought I was never going to get out.

"I finally made it, and the line was still in sight. I yelled `wait for me', and my platoon sergeant Jimmy Purfield said, `Come on, I thought you weren't coming with us'.

"He picked up a slice of German pumpernickel bread and waved it. `Extra rations tonight,' he said. But we were terribly shelled that night. We lost every officer in my company."

The Battle of Arras had a curious silver lining. A couple of miles from the ruined no-man's land where the 18-year-old James had stumbled, his father was serving in the heavy artillery. Apparently he found a corporal with the Royal West Kent badge, and said, `You don't happen to be in the Eighth Battalion, do you?' He said, `Yes, I am'. My father said, `Would you happen to know my son?' `I certainly do,' he said, `in fact I just left him in a church, sitting knocking back a tin of pineapple.' He came into the church as I was opening another tin. He put his hand on my shoulder and turned me round; I found it was my father." Dr Hudson wipes his eye. "We had been in the same battle together, the battle of Arras. He was with the artillery on the extreme right flank; I was on the extreme left, between Vimy Ridge and Loos." He wipes his other eye. "He wasn't cut out to be a fighter. But he was a damned good father. A delightful chap. We had great fun."

After the war, James Hudson resumed his medical studies. He became a dental surgeon, specialising in oral and maxillofacial surgery - that is, reconstructing faces that had been severely damaged by accident or blast. He campaigned to have dental surgery recognised as an essential component of every hospital, and founded the British Dental Association Hospitals Group in 1947, when he was 50. He is still the group's honorary auditor and is consequently the oldest dentist in the kingdom. "I always say," he relates modestly, "I've done more for my country since the war than I ever did during it."